Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The adjective λευκος (leukos) primarily means white, and secondarily shiny or glittery. In the Bible it's used for clothing ("white as light," Matthew 17:2; Acts 1:10), hair (Matthew 5:36, Revelation 1:14, "white like wool, like snow"), of a stone (Revelation 2:17), of a horse (Revelation 6:2), of a cloud (Revelation 14:4), and of God's throne (Revelation 20:11). White is also the color of a crop ready to be harvested (John 4:35).
This adjective occurs 25 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it comes:
- The verb λευκαινω (leukaino), meaning to whiten or make white. It's used only twice in the New Testament: Mark 9:3, "his garments became radiant and exceedingly white" and Revelation 7:14, "garments made white in the blood of the Lamb".
These words are all part of the vast Proto-Indo-European root "lewk-", meaning bright (white), to shine and even to see. This root is accounted for in languages from Persian to Celtic (our word "light" comes from it), and in Slavic languages it's taken on a sub-meaning of to accomplish, to reach or even to catch. This latter nuance has baffled scholars, particularly scholars with little understanding of the physical properties of light, or the power of man's intuition (Deuteronomy 30:14, Isaiah 26:19, Romans 2:15).
What we moderns have known since Einstein, and the ancients somehow intuitively, is that all particles (polarized energy) come from light (photonic energy), and that light (virtual photonic force fields) bind electrons to atomic nuclei, and thus hold atoms together and bind atoms to other atoms. That means that light comes before all things and holds everything together (Colossians 1:17).
Another thing that we moderns have known since Einstein and the ancients since forever is that light is surprisingly alike water: they both are substantial (light is a thing), they both come from a source, they both propagate and have speeds and travel along trajectories and obey gravity, and they both come in drops (photons) and ripples (Schrödinger's wave function). For more on this, read our article on the Hebrew verb נהר (nahar), which both means to flow (what a river does) and to shine (what a lamp does).
Patriarch Abraham originated in Ur (in Babylon, later Persia), whose name comes from the Hebrew verb for light, namely אור ('or). Abraham left Ur and traveled to the other extreme of his ancient world, namely the Egyptian river Nile, whose Hebrew name Ye'or, likewise derives from the noun אור ('or), light. For more on the association between cultures and rivers, see our article on the Tigris.
Even more strikingly, and something the ancients were certainly aware of: white light consists of colors, and the colors of white light become apparent when light travels through water (hence the rainbow as sign of God's covenant with Noah; Genesis 9:16; also see our article on νεφελη, nephele, cloud). Light consists of nuances (darkness doesn't) and light conveys information (darkness doesn't). Water produces life (darkness doesn't), and the way fish live in water, so souls live in light (see our article on ιχθυς, ichtus, fish).
The ancients (and particularly the monotheistic ancients; see our article on satan) realized with calm clarity that darkness is not the opposite of light but the absence of it. Likewise, ignorance and foolishness are nor the opposites of knowledge and wisdom but the absence of them. Likewise, hate is not the opposite of love but the absence of it. Likewise, chaos and primitivity are the absence, not the opposite, of order and civilized societies — and civilized societies are societies that consist of lawfully governed cities and a broad manifestation of ελευθερια (eleutheria), or freedom-by-law.
Paul wrote that it is for freedom (same word: ελευθερια, eleutheria, freedom-by-law) that Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1). He could say that because he understood that freedom, like light, is creatively formative: it comes before all things and holds all things together. Freedom is substantial, which means that it's a thing, like a skill that must be learned or a building that must be built. Freedom is what governs speech and freedom of speech, and both these things only come about when men willingly and eagerly submit to the rules and standards that give substance to these things. Freedom comes from mastery of law.
In texts other than the Bible, our adjective λευκος (leukos), white, shows up in an enormous array of words, from having white blossoms to having white arms or to be with white horses. The noun λυχνος (luchnos) denotes a portable lamp (see below), and the very fair word αμφιλυκη (amphiluke) denotes the morning twilight. In our times this Greek root survives in the word "leukemia."
Our root also exists in Latin, where it appears to predominantly mean to shine and only secondarily to be white. The verb luceo means to be light, be clear, shine, beam, glow, glitter (say Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary). Other words that contain this verb are luce, meaning by day(-light); lucerna, meaning oil lamp. And words that are related to the verb lucere are the familiar nouns lux, meaning light or day(-time), and lumen, meaning light or brightness, which survive in English in words like luminous and illuminate, and even luna, meaning moon.
Note that the word for white in Hebrew comes from a whole other root, namely לבן (laben), meaning to be or become white, which never means to be light and rather has a connotation of being dark or dumb (hence the name Laban). This is really quite clever since, normally, a white object is precisely as dark as a black object.
When light hits a white surface, however, the white surface will reject light (because of which it looks white), but a black surface will absorb light and make it its own. A black object absorbs light, because of which it heats up, because of which it radiates light. This is why, after having been exposed to light, a black object is more radiant than a white object, and a white object stays darker than a black object.
Obviously related to the above, the noun λυχνος (luchnos) means a light in the sense of a thing that gives light. This word is often, and rightly so, translated with "light", but it needs to be emphasized that a light (a lamp) is a device that accommodates a chemical process that releases energy in the form of light. The light that comes out of the lamp does not belong to the lamp, was never absorbed by the lamp, or is in any way created by the lamp. A lamp is like a fruit juicer: just a thing that cracks fruit, so as to separate the fruit's juice from its flesh.
Our noun λυχνος (luchnos) is never used for a natural light (like a star) and always for an artificial light — any kind of device that allows the controlled burning of olive oil (ελαιον, elaion, olive oil; πυρ, pur, fire; καιω, kaio, to burn). It's commonly used as synonym of the noun φανος (phanos), a light-shiner, from the verb φαω (phao), to emit, and λαμπας (lampas), a lamp (see below). Strikingly, our word's plural, οι λυχνοι (hoi luchnoi) or τα λυχνα (ta luchna), referred to the lamp-market.
Our noun λυχνος (luchnos), a light, is used 14 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it derives:
- The noun λυχνια (luchnia), meaning a lampstand: a stick or stander to accommodate one or more λυχνοι (luchnoi), lights. This word is similar to the familiar Hebrew noun מנורה (menorah), lampstand or Menorah, from the aforementioned verb נהר (nahar), to flow or shine (making the menorah both a many-branched lampstand and a many-branched river delta). This noun is used 12 times; see full concordance.
The verb λαμπω (lampo) means to shine or give light (hence our English word lamp). It's of unclear origin and without obvious cognates. That's not to say there are no candidates: there is an enticing PIE root "lehp-", to shine. And since in Hebrew the letters L and M are both very common prefixes, it's possible to construct our Greek verb from any Hebrew word that contains a P or even a B (for instance, Hebrew for "onto Memphis" or "fit for Memphis" would be למף, l'mep). The verb μεμφομαι (memphomai), to find fault, likewise appears to derive from the name Memphis (or its formation was helped because of it), which suggests that our verb λαμπω (lampo) describes a shining of a light specifically to find fault.
Sanskrit has a verb lambate, to hang down limply (and don't lamps hang limply from their lampstands?), which relates to the adjective lame, and the verbs to lam (to beat, flee, escape) and to lambaste (to physically or verbally assault), all from a broadly attested Proto-Indo-European root "lem-", to break, which is what you do with olives when you want to make oil. Even more compelling is the Greek verb λαμβανω (lambano), to take, whose derived verb καταλαμβανω (katalambano), to take down, is used in John's ringing declaration: "The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not take it down" (John 1:5).
Our verb λαμπω (lampo), to shine, is used 7 times, see full concordance, and from it derive:
- Together with the preposition εκ (ek), meaning out or from: the verb εκλαμπω (eklampo), to shine out, flash forth or radiate (what the sun does). It's used in Matthew 13:43 only.
- The noun λαμπας (lampas), meaning lamp: a thing that gives light by burning olive oil. This noun is often used as synonym for λυχνος (luchnos) and φανος (phanos), see above. It's used 9 times; see full concordance. Also see the noun σκανδαλον (skandalon), which describes a lamp for night-fishing, a light that deliberately confuses, or guides onto captivity rather than freedom.
- The adjective λαμπρος (lampros), meaning shining, bright, radiant, or rather declarative, denotative or illuminative. Like the adjective λευκος (leukos), white (see above), his adjective is used mostly in descriptions of fancy clothing. Yet, our word does not so much emphasize these clothes' whiteness or splendidness, but rather the obviousness with which they declare the station or profession of the wearer. A "radiant" robe does not somehow glow from within, but rather "clearly" proclaims the nature of the one in it. In the Greek classics this word may describe stars (Revelation 22:16; indeed, the job of stars is to be signs and indicators: Genesis 1:14), clothes, but also clear water (Revelation 22:1), a clear voice, a clear or clarifying statement, a well-known person, or a bringer of glad (clear, untroubled) tidings. Our adjective is used 9 times, see full concordance, and from it derive:
- Together with the prefix περι (peri), meaning around or about: the verb περιλαμπω (perilampo), to shine all around, to illuminate (and expose and clarify) everything around (Luke 2:9 and Acts 26:13 only).